New Under the Sun:
Volume 5, Issue 7
“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.” Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 2000.
Recently, I had a conversation with a man who said he’d been raised in a fundamentalist Christian religion, but that he’d deprogrammed himself during college. However, 30 years later, he still feared evolution. He didn’t really understand evolution and didn’t see why it mattered whether it was taught or not. He asked, how would understanding evolution affect my life for the better? In his view, if he understood and accepted evolution, then there would be no point to life. It is such ill-founded concerns as this that have led to Dawkins’ observations, quoted above.
I discussed his concerns with him for a few minutes and recommended some reading he could do, but it disturbed me that this man, who no longer considered himself a fundamentalist, still could not understand and accept the validity of evolution. I’ve decided to devote this issue of AnthroHealth News to the topic of evolution because it is upon an understanding of evolution that AnthroHealth is based.
The fear of those who do not understand evolution seems to be that if humans are not a special creation then we are nothing. It is as if everything we’ve done throughout time is meaningless if we are not specially created. I do not really grasp this reasoning. However, there are even those who are career evolutionary biologists, but who want to see humans, “modern” humans (very narrowly-defined as to be as like themselves as possible), as a special creation. According to them, we cannot be clear, lineal descendants of earlier hominids, or even the same species as so-called non-modern hominids (e.g. Neanderthals). No. There has to have been some sort of “creation” event in the not-too-distant past (geologically speaking: 150,000 – 200,000 years ago) that led to us. The current contender for this event is the appearance of fully-articulate language which supporters of recent “modern” humans believe was absent in prior and/or concurrent humans such as Neanderthals. Since there is just as much evidence (in my opinion, more) to disprove this hypothesis as to support it, the paleoanthropological battles continue.
Why is it so important to view ourselves as a separate, special creation? Why does it bother otherwise biologically-competent individuals to see humans as the current endpoint in an unbroken chain of ancestor-descendant relationships? Are we so fragile in our identity that we must live in a moat-protected castle? Or is it that we are so dangerous and fearful that we must separate ourselves from the rest of life by a fathoms-deep chasm?
We can be special without being a special creation. Of course, every species is special in some way or it wouldn’t exist. We have used our special, powerful brains to provide technological solutions to problems that couldn’t be solved through natural selection. But even with our suite of clever solutions, we have nothing as brilliant as the camouflage of the cuttlefish achieved through natural selection.
Why is it imperative that we view ourselves as a part of rather than apart from nature? Because to do otherwise is self-destructive. But this awareness cannot be of a simplistic kind. There are many who can accept that humans are an animal and, therefore, part of nature, but who still do not understand and/or accept what that means in terms of evolution.
This is especially a problem in the medical field. One would think that physicians would be well-trained in evolution since they are dealing with human biology. But for many, this does not appear to be the case. The human body is treated more as a machine that can be parked in a garage than as an organism that interacts with its environment. Of course, this attitude is not limited to the medical field, but it is an attitude that should never occur among physicians, and would not if they really understood evolution. If the goal of a physician is to optimize patient health as opposed to optimizing personal income (and I think the first goal is paramount for most physicians), then the best way to do that is to consider health in an evolutionary perspective. The world of the fundamentalist is the world subsequent to the development of agriculture and urbanization. This is a tiny blink in time of the span of human evolution. The last 10,000 years or so is an aberration of the optimal human lifestyle. Therefore, if physicians really want to optimize their patients’ health (as much as is possible in our current world), they need to take a really long-term, evolutionary perspective.
For instance, although we can assume some level of pharmacological expertise among our ancient ancestors since even chimps have a few herbal remedies, it is improbable that our reliance on drug treatments is evolutionarily adaptive. But it is easier to prescribe a drug than to find out how the patient’s life is maladaptive and work with the patient to develop appropriate modifications. It is made even easier by patients who would rather take a pill than change their lifestyle. Evolutionarily-trained physicians would be able to make a better case to their resistant patients. Those who refused to listen probably would have been lost to the magic spells and potions of homeopathy anyway.
Another example of physicians who ignore evolution and human environmental adaptations are those who encourage their patients to fear the sun, especially without offering any appropriate alternatives. We are not machines that can be parked in a room for hours/days/years on end without experiencing adverse consequences. I could give many more examples related to the medical field, but instead I recommend reading further in the field of evolutionary medicine. The most accessible book on this topic is Why We Get Sick : The New Science of Darwinian Medicine by Nesse and Williams. Until evolutionary medicine courses become a part of the standard medical school curriculum, physicians will continue to graduate without a complete understanding of the best ways to optimize patient health.
Let us now examine the field of nutrition since appropriate nutrition is the basis of good health. It is readily apparent that there is no consensus among nutritionists on what the best diet is for optimal human health. The various diets are based on religious and/or cultural traditions, strongly influenced by agribusiness. The fact that humans can eat these various diets and be healthy to varying degrees does not mean that we should eat in those ways. The only way to determine the optimal diet for humans is from an evolutionary perspective. And the only way to do that is to focus on the diet of our free-living relatives, the chimpanzees/bonobos, and on what we can determine of the diet of our hominid ancestors from archaeological analysis. This was the perspective I took when I developed the AnthroHealth Premier Nutrition plan.
Parents also have much to learn from taking an evolutionary perspective. Two human mothers with an evolutionary perspective modeled their own parenting styles on our relatives. Jane Goodall spent a few years closely observing chimpanzees in Tanzania before she became pregnant. She considered Flo, the dominant female of the chimpanzee group, to be one of the best mothers she’d ever encountered. When her own son was born, she used many of the techniques she learned from watching Flo. Birute Galdikas, the premier orangutan primatologist, followed a similar pattern after living with the orangutans of Borneo. Going further in cross-species behavior, Galdikas became the adoptive mother to a number of orphaned orangs. Infants, whether human, chimp, or orang, are adapted to being constantly carried and to sleeping with mom to ease breast feeding. What health and behavior problems might we avoid by taking into account adapted behavior from day one?
If understanding evolution and valuing an evolutionary perspective are necessary, this means that educators beginning in the primary grades need to be fully informed on these topics so that they can effectively teach them. Currently, even many high school biology teachers do not seem to understand the importance of evolution, perhaps because their own science background is limited. Waiting until college to really learn about evolution is too late. If the fundamentalists have their way, no one will be able to effectively learn about evolution.
Evolution at its most basic and broadest is simply change. Evolution applied to living organisms is heritable changes passed from ancestors to descendants. As long as there are descendants, there will be evolution. Natural selection as a factor in evolution means that individuals who are best-adapted to a particular environment are most likely to survive and pass on their traits to the next generation. It is really difficult to see why this process would upset anyone. But, of course, this process means that humans and chimpanzees have a common, many greats-grandparent. We are not a special creation. Does this then mean there is no point to life or does it mean that understanding life is even more important? If we were a special creation, we would be disconnected from the rest of life. Why would that be better? Instead of being a sort of machine living in a box, we are connected by an unbroken line of ancestors to all of life. And we, unlike all other living things, know this. What could be more wonderful and special than that?
Book Club: In celebration of summer, I’ve decided to turn the Book Review section into an online book club. The first book will be A Devil’s Chaplain by Richard Dawkins. It is a collection of “Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love”. The book is in 6 sections plus a concluding essay. For this next month, we will read and discuss the first section: “Science and Sensibility.” That is, those of you who are interested, will read the first section and can email your comments to me. I will summarize the discussion in the next issue of AnthroHealth News, along with further comments of my own. We will then move on to the next section, or perhaps two, and so on until the book is complete at which point we will begin another one.
I chose Dawkins for our first author because he is a major figure in the field of evolutionary biology and an excellent writer on the topic. I will give him the last word on evolution by natural selection:
From the lecture: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, 1996.
AnthroHealth Tip of the Month: Glory in that fact that you are part of nature. For those of you who would rather read a novel than non-fiction, I recommend The Family Tree by Sheri Tepper. Writing in a mix of fantasy and soft scifi, Tepper takes on the issue of our place in nature, with a surprising, provocative twist. Let me know what you think.
© 2001-2009 Kathleen E. Fuller, PhD. All rights reserved.